OBITUARY: Evangelical Christian and former Moderator James Matthews

Rev Dr James Matthews
Rev Dr James Matthews

Rev Dr James Alexander Matthews was a schoolteacher who switched careers to become one of the Province’s most senior clergymen.

A highly-regarded evangelical minister, he was appointed moderator of the Presbyterian church during the late 1980s.

Rev Dr James Matthews

Rev Dr James Matthews

Born in Mountjoy, Co Tyrone, his date of birth is incorrect by almost a month on his birth certificate.

His family say that the doctor had been drinking at the time, and did not get round to filling in the form until months later (his true birthdate is September 12, 1927).

He was the son of Elizabeth (known as ‘Eliza’) and Samuel Matthews – a farmer who died when he was aged just 10.

He attended Omagh Academy and then Stranmillis College, where he trained as a teacher.

It was during the interview for the college (which happened to be on VE Day) that he met Jean Logan, whom he went on to marry in 1949.

He taught at a string of primary schools ranging from Omagh Model, to Lislane near Limavady, where he and his wife were the sole teachers.

When he moved to Derryboy school in Crossgar a fellow Christian teacher persuaded him to enter the ministry.

He had already been a committed believer, and began training for the ministry in 1956.

He became assistant at Mourne Presbyterian in Kilkeel, then minister of Brookside church in Ahoghill, and then joined First Lurgan Presbyterian in 1971 – where he remained as minister for more than 23 years.

From 1989-1990, he was Moderator of the church.

The annual appointment is made after a vote among the Province’s presbyteries.

Once given, it comes with an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Union College.

Rev Dr Rodney Sterritt (his assistant at the time, and himself a future moderator) said Rev Matthews travelled overseas to meet mission workers and preached at different churches each Sunday during his year in office.

He said the ongoing violence was the dominant issue of the day, adding: “He was a very kind, compassionate man. He did what he could to comfort families that were caught up in the Troubles.”

Following his time in Lurgan, served a final three years in Sixmilecross, before retiring in September 1997.

His daughter Barbara described him as “evangelical” in outlook.

“His aim was to see people into the Kingdom,” she said.

“That was what he preached. He was a teacher by trade and a teacher by gifting as well...

“Though he believed what he believed, he was a mild, gentle person. He didn’t steamroller people.

“He always had a cheerful spirit. His broad smile and cheerful spirit stayed with him to the end.”

He had Alzheimer’s for the last 15 years of his life.

During much of his retirement he and his wife had been living independently in Castlerock, Co Londonderry, in a house he had built himself, before they moved in with his daughter Barbara.

At the time of his death, he had been in respite care in Ballymena for a three-week stay, and was due to come home to his wife on July 22 – the day of their wedding anniversary.

However, he died of natural causes on July 19.

His funeral was at Second Dunboe Prebyterian Church in Coleraine on July 22, and he was buried at the church yard.

“I’d say he has passed on a great legacy of faith to his children said Barbara,” said Barbara.

At his funeral service, a reading was given from 2 Peter exhorting believers to strive for goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, Godliness, mutual affection and love.

The epistle promises: “For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Barbara added: “That’s one of the things we’re confident in. His trust was in the Lord Jesus.”

He is survived by his daughters Barbara and Carol, and son Stephen, as well as his widow, four grand-children, and two great-grandchildren.